It would be a mistake for Emmy voters to overlook Netflix’s Jessica Jones and relegate it as just another Marvel superhero TV series. Despite the long-awaited genre breakthrough last year at the Emmys in the drama category with HBO’s Game of Thrones, Jessica Jones is so much more than a neo-noir crime story about a kick-ass girl in leotards (in fact she doesn’t wear them). Adapted by Twilight screenwriter and Dexter EP Melissa Rosenberg from Marvel’s Alias comic book series, Jessica Jones follows an alcoholic, PTSD-plagued, rape-surviving gumshoe who possesses an incredible degree of physical strength. Jessica Jones is a serious show about the realities of abuse survivors and is told through a vigilante prism. In the wake of her emotionally powerful turn as a tragic heroin addict on Breaking Bad, Krysten Ritter outdoes herself here, playing a sublimely intense, fierce antihero, who in her deepest cynicism is just trying to keep peace in the world.
Melissa, what made Krysten the right actress to play Jessica Jones?
Rosenberg: She was one of the first actresses to come in, even back when I was developing it at ABC. She was always on my mind. One of the more important aspects of the role is that the performer couldn’t just have the dramatic chops, but the comedy chops as well. As the saying goes, dying is easy, comedy is hard, and it’s hard to find people who can carry both those ranges. One scene that was always the tell-tale with performers during auditions takes place in episode 2, when Jessica says the line, “I don’t give a bag of d**ks what kinky s**t you’re into, just be into it quietly.” No one could deliver that line and find the humor in it. Right off the bat, Krysten said that line, separating the wheat from the chaff. She set the bar so high, and we saw a lot of people.
Krysten, when you initially heard about the role, you weren’t bowled over.
Ritter: I was looking to be in a dark, gritty show that could push boundaries. When I got the call from my manager and heard the words Netflix and Marvel, those are two giant super brands you want to be in business with. I’m like, “Great.” Then I heard that she’s a typical superhero, but she’s bad at it. My mind went to a slapstick version of a superhero. He pitched it to me poorly. When I went in to read, it was a scene with dummy fake character names inserted in for Luke Cage. That scene gave me the seeds for Jessica Jones and her demons. She’s an alcoholic, she’s a mess and I became very intrigued. I met with Melissa and talked about the show. She spoke about it like a straight drama; a physical character study. Then they locked me in the room with the script and I was blown away. I walked out of that meeting and said, “Let’s lock this up.”
How did you prepare for the role?
Ritter: It’s the most rewarding creative challenge I’ve ever faced. As soon as I got the part, I’m in the gym, getting beat up by a trainer, lifting. I’m a lanky girl. I’m not cool like Jessica Jones, so I had to change my posture. I spent three-to-four hours with an acting teacher, which informed me in building out her backstory. In TV, you move so quickly, you get scenes at the last minute. Having that solid foundation for Jessica [prepared me] for several scenes that would occur in one day.
When you know your character so well, you know how she listens and responds. It’s about prep work, endurance, and just immersing myself in it. I was in New York City [preparing]. I live in Los Angeles mostly, and have a lot of girlfriends and a full life out here. But in New York, I had a random furnished apartment, my girlfriends weren’t there, and I lived in complete isolation. That helped me get into character and stay there.
I read the entire Alias series. I devoured them. I wasn’t exposed to the comic book. The fourth book is the most important in regards to the show. The writers took events even further. The original IP is so great, they shot [panels] directly from the comic book. What I love about her is that she’s not defined by what’s happened in her past. No matter how bad things get for her, underneath it all, she’s capable of greatness.
What drew you to Jessica Jones, Melissa?
Rosenberg: It was after the whole Dexter and Twilight runs when I took meetings. ABC Studios asked what I was interested in doing next. I said I’d love to do a really damaged, complex female superhero, like Iron Man. They quickly put me together with Jeph Loeb, and he brought me Jessica Jones. We did it for the ABC network, but it turned out not to be the right tone for them. Jeph went on to work on something else, but he was always about putting this together. That project was only on the page, it never went beyond that.
What was different about the ABC version?
Rosenberg: When you have a series that’s on week to week with commercial breaks, it lends itself to the case-of-the-week scenario. It was heavily weighted in that direction. It was bound to be less gritty and raw. But when it went to Netflix, we weren’t looking at commercial breaks, you’re looking at someone binge watching. You’re not spending real estate on the page, reminding what the characters said before. You’re telling a 13-hour movie. So at Netflix, there was more real estate in creating depth and more time in evolving characters. Whereas on the network, it would be about trimming frames and plot. On Netflix, it was the opposite. It was about finding more scenes to shoot. We had space.
Jessica Jones is one of the most forward thinking feminist shows on TV, despite the fact that it centers on a superhero.
Ritter: The series has started so many feminist conversations that I never anticipated. People come up to me and find meaning in things that I didn’t realize I was doing. I think people enjoy seeing a woman who doesn’t look a certain way, who is strong, ass-kicking, who isn’t rolling over and dying. She shows real strength. I’m moved to tears when people tell me that the show has helped them: “Thank you for doing it with integrity. I have PTSD. That’s what it feels like for me.” So many people feel represented by Jessica and that’s refreshing and amazing.